Data Philanthropy: Public & Private Sector Data Sharing for Global Resilience

7 min read

The digital revolution of the first decade of this new century has brought many wonders, yet it has also has ushered in a bewildering array of unanticipated consequences. We now find ourselves in a volatile and hyperconnected world where risk has been globalized.   Our tightly-coupled systems have become interdependent, creating feedback loops so complex that predictive analysis is of little use.  There is a kind of butterfly effect at work in the world. Crises emerge suddenly without warning, interact to amplify one another's effects, and reverberate across the globe, increasing the burden of poverty, disease, and hunger among the world's most vulnerable communities.  All too often, by the time we understand what is happening, it's too late to act.

However, the same technologies that connect us to one another have also turned all of us into prolific producers of data, and this new data may hold the keys to mitigating much of the volatility and uncert ainty that now confronts us. We are now swimming in an ocean of digital data, most of which didn't exist even a few years ago. The private sector is already using real-time analysis of this data to understand the changing needs of its customers.   One of the defining challenges of the second decade of this century will be for the public sector to learn how to tap into this new "unnatural resource" to understand the changing needs of citizens and respond with agility.

Data Visible and Invisible

Today there is a tremendous amount of useful data available online, from user-generated content such as news, blogs, and social media, to the structured data being shared through open data initiatives.  Yet increasingly, the real wealth of data out there is what is known as "massive passive data," or "data exhaust." It's the personal information corporations collect about what products their customers buy and about how they use digital services.  It is the digital trails we leave behind, merely by going about our daily lives. It is the data that powers business, which the World Economic Forum has described as a new asset class.

If you've read my post on digital smoke signals, you know that we at Global Pulse believe analysis of this data exhaust holds an even greater potential than public Web content to help policy makers gain a real-time understanding of human well-being.  Certainly the businesses that collect this data see the value in maintaining exclusive access to it: a real-time understanding of their markets allows them to respond to emerging trends with the agility needed to compete in today.  On top of it all, there are often a host of legal constraints related to protection of privacy and secondary use.  Unsurprisingly, the default approach of most companies is to guard this data closely behind network firewalls—and to defend it fiercely as intellectual property. 

In other words, while there is more and more of this data produced every day, it is only available to the private sector, and it is only being used to boost revenues. To protect communities against the impacts of fast-moving crises and keep global development on track, leaders need real-time feedback on how well their programs and policies are working.  Many governments are only beginning to consider adopting the technologies needed for real-time analytics, to be sure.  At the same time, however, the data that could help give them the additional agility needed to meet the challenges of governance in the 21st century is accumulating behind corporate firewalls.  When public policy lags household reality by months or years, particularly in today's dynamic socioeconomic landscape, the consequences for vulnerable communities can be severe. 

Data Philanthropy

The question becomes, is there a way for businesses to share analysis of their data with the public sector, while also protecting both the privacy of their customers and their edge over the competition? It's a question we think about daily on the Global Pulse team.

We've spoken publicly about the concept called data philanthropy, whereby the private sector shares data to support more timely and targeted policy action.  And while, architecturally, it's not clear what form or forms data philanthropy could take, we like the term as it drives home the message that shared data is a public good. We have begun exploring ideas and research that might uncover a viable framework of how data philanthropy actually functions, i.e. how data generated in the private sector can readily be shared with the public sector. At least two ideas are already being robustly debated: A data commons where some kinds of data are shared publicly after adequate anonymization and aggregation; and an alerting network where more sensitive data that can never be shared publicly is nevertheless analyzed by companies behind their firewalls for specific smoke signals.

There are other models emerging as well. Here are a few of the threads from thought leaders we're tracking:

  • Georgetown University Professor Michael Nelson participated in a Strata Jumpstart webcast last week and gave a preview of his vision of the "naked corporation" and the idea of "strategic leaking," a model for how companies may reap multiple benefits of greater transparency.
  • Bill Hoffman at the World Economic Forum, John Clippinger at the Law Lab, and members of the PDEC, recognizing that people increasingly consider personal data as a form of personal property, imagine a future in which your personal data is stored in a secure vault in the cloud, to which you alone selectively mediate 3rd-party access.  
  • Jane Yakowitz of Brooklyn Law School, in The Tragedy of the Data Commons, warns that if we do not abandon our view of personal data as property and come to see it as a public asset that must be shared in a commons as well as protected, we run the risk of crippling public policy research. (Both she and Bill Hoffman will be participating with us on a Strata Summit panel titled "Personal Data for Public Good" on Tuesday.)

Down the road, it's not impossible to imagine some version of each of these converging in an interesting way, but in the meantime, we need a pragmatic approach that can be applied today in both developing and industrialized economies. Private sector participation is central to this effort, and we are eager to engage with potential partners. What has been a pleasant surprise is that, based on our initial talks, the private sector agrees that what we are proposing is not simply a new form of charity or CSR, but a sensible strategy for business risk mitigation, particularly when investing in emerging markets. To illustrate why, I'll recount the hypothetical example of a mobile phone company in sub-Saharan Africa that I described in my post on digital smoke signals. 

Imagine you are CEO of that company, and you have just completed construction of a number of costly new cell towers in a region that appears to be a promising market.  Unbeknownst to policy makers, many in this community are being affected by an on-going, low-level food crisis.  By the time this becomes public knowledge, your new customers are no longer able to afford your services. 

What if it turned out that calling patterns within the data you were collecting from your customers could, if subjected to appropriate analysis, have revealed that they were in trouble months earlier?  As a business, perhaps you were mining that data for evidence that a new messaging service was more popular with teenagers than the old one.  What you weren't looking for, however, were patterns in the data that told a story of people working harder for less money, selling off their assets, and struggling to make ends meet; patterns that could have sped up help to your customers, stemming your losses.

We are pretty sure the patterns are there. Global Pulse was created to identify patterns in data exhaust that could help policy makers speed up planning and response, and to share those discoveries globally.  Consider, if policy makers in the operational region of your hypothetical mobile phone company knew what to look for, they could have responded with financial assistance and other programs to protect their citizens— your customers—from lasting harm.

So how do we take data philanthropy from concept to operational reality? We are talking with a number of business leaders in companies that take a sustainability-oriented, double- or triple-bottom-line view of their market, and as I've indicated data philanthropy hasn't been a hard sell—at least conceptually.  They have expressed a willingness to engage with us in a series of collaborative research projects exploring what utility their data might have for giving policy makers a real-time understanding of the well-being of communities on the path of economic development, an important goal for both public and private sectors.

At this point we still have far more questions than answers:  What data can safely be shared, and in what form, and with whom?  How can we develop an appropriate framework to protect privacy?  How do we prevent misuse of the data?  How can we lower barriers and create better incentives for sharing? What organizations should be involved in designing a global architecture for data philanthropy?  What would the public-private sector partnership agreements look like?   What technology tools and approaches could help make data philanthropy an operational reality?

Answering any of those questions, however, starts with accessing the necessary data. Global Pulse has a vested interest in seeing data philanthropy take off, so we're getting the conversation started.  We'll be engaging with the big data community around these ideas next week at O'Reilly's Strata New York, and we're thinking about convening a series of events on data philanthropy next year to develop a roadmap and start building a community of interest.  That said, the implications here go far beyond the scope of our project, and diverse legal, ethical, technological, methodological, and political expertise will be required to get us there.  So we are interested in engaging partners in both public and private sectors.

This is one of those rare cases where one may say, in all seriousness, that together we can truly change the world.

If you're interested in collaborating, please contact us at



Top image credit: "The complex network of cargo ship movements." Source: Pablo Kaluza et al. Increasing reliance on global supply chains increases risk as single disruptions cascade globally. 

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